The 2015 campaign has reached its watershed moment
Midway through the general election campaign, both Labour and the Conservatives are changing their tactics – and it's a triumph for voters.
"I'm not going to talk about anything other than winning an overall majority," David Cameron rather steadfastly insisted on BBC1's The Andrew Marr Show this morning. His actions – and those of Labour this week – suggest the alternative is exactly what both the Conservatives and Labour are focusing on.
Back in 2010 the British electorate delivered an equivocal verdict on David Cameron and Gordon Brown's parties. Neither were really trusted enough to rule by themselves. Voters set up a scenario where both would have to act more cautiously and carefully. Whichever ended up in power, the Tories or Labour would have to behave differently.
In the event, not that much did change. Thanks to the Liberal Democrats' staunch embrace of power the resulting coalition felt more like business as usual than anyone could have anticipated. That experience has defined the main parties' expectations of what the next hung parliament might be like, too.
Or at least, it has until now.
The last week has seen a dramatic shift in approach that amounts to nothing less than an admission of failure: that clinging to the support of their own party bases is nowhere near enough to hold power. Campaigning for an overall majority by trumpeting your own party's values and policies above all others has been shown to have failed. You only have to look at the polls to confirm this: with just 18 days left, neither Labour nor the Conservatives has a consistent lead across the board. In the last seven days, it looks like the strategists have finally responded.
— Financial Times (@FT) April 19, 2015
It began with the manifesto launches last week. The extremities of these mutual displays of political transvestitism were extraordinary: Labour insisting it is a party of rigorous financial management, the Conservatives playing up their appeal to the workers. These were events designed to reach out beyond the usual party faithful. They were about widening appeal, not mobilising existing support.
Then comes two interviews in today's papers in which this strategy becomes, for the first time, completely explicit.
Cameron's messaging in the Sunday Times is ostensibly one of tactical voting. We know this, the newspaper makes clear, because a senior Conservatives says the prime minister wants Lib Dem and Ukip types to "lend their votes". What Cameron actually says is this:
"Don't think your vote doesn't matter — or that a vote for one of the other parties makes no impact on the overall picture… If you are considering voting Ukip or Lib Dem, I urge you to think of the chaos of a weak Ed Miliband, propped up by Nicola Sturgeon.
"Every time Ed Miliband wants to pass a bill, he will have Nicola Sturgeon making a series of demands on him — the hostage-taker asking for more borrowing, more taxes and more welfare… Government would end up as a dog's dinner of haggling and backroom deals."
Is it tactical voting to appeal beyond your base? Or it is about trying to broaden your appeal nationally? I suspect the latter is more significant. Much as it's tempting to conclude this is a 'tactical voting' election, the evidence for that outside Scotland is sparse. The polling stalemate is the real reason for this appeal to other camps. Both the Conservatives and Labour expected to have been making more progress by this late stage of the game. It's more likely the parties are shifting their approach at the same time because they feel they have no other choice.
Cameron is not alone in this, either. Here's what Miliband has to say to the Observer in today's interview:
"I am a politician of the left, but I am positioned where the mainstream of politics is positioned. I am on the centre ground of politics. I want to reach out to Tory voters, to Liberal Democrat voters, to Ukip voters, to non-voters… to people who feel that David Cameron can't answer the challenge of our time, who worry about our place in the European Union, who really think to themselves, 'we can do a lot better as a country'."
Again, there are echoes of tactical voting logic here – the identification of a common enemy in the form of Cameron being foremost among them. But Miliband's strategy is really a reversion to the old Blair tactic of seizing and holding the centre ground. Miliband even uses the phrase; gone are the days when it was felt Ed would take his party further to the left than David Miliband would ever have done.
Tactical voting only really works on a tactical, seat-by-seat level. The campaign both Miliband and Cameron are fighting is a strategic, national one. For months they had been holding their own closed-minded, one-sided conversations with the British public: a tedious lecture about how their own approach was the right one. Now the language is shifting. They are claiming they can represent something more than their own parties' views. It amounts to nothing less than a repudiation of their core vote strategy at the last minute. It is a sign of panic – but one that is resulting in a shift which will serve democracy better.
It has a broader benefit, too – it lays the groundwork for a hung parliament that is set to be very different to the last five years. Yes, it might be motivated by pragmatism – as Nigel Farage rather bluntly put it this weekend, even Churchill had to do a deal with Stalin – but that is a pragmatism that better reflects voters' collective view.
These attempts to broaden the parties' base, making themselves appealing to other voters, helps make a hung parliament more plausible. The parties are finally behaving like they can't win an overall majority. A hung parliament, after first becoming the main expectation, has now succeeded in shaping the campaign.
The junior parties have understood this for a while. The SNP's messaging towards Labour is all about paving the way for more nationalist influence in Westminster. Farage's appeal for Ukip voters to back the Conservatives where he does not have plausible candidates standing is about maximising his party's influence. The Liberal Democrats, who have been the most brazen in basing their whole pitch on the basis of another hung parliament, are doing their best to win a repeat of the last coalition.
Now Labour and the Conservatives are responding too, finally accepting they must reach out to win and hold power. The refusal of voters to give either of them a mandate to govern on their own has finally sunk in, resulting in a change in strategy more significant than anything else this campaign has seen so far.
The election hasn't arrived yet, but the new era of British politics has already begun.